Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

  From the Six-Day War to the Egyptian-Israeli Peace

Steve Muhlberger

It took the Arab world a long time to recover from the Six-Day War of 1967.

The Israeli victory  encouraged loose talk about Israel as a superpower, and a noticeable pro-Israeli slant in the West.

There were two other effects within the Arab countries.

Nasir was forced to become more accomodating with more conservative regimes he had scorned in the past.

The PLO become a high profile force.   The Palestinians had once again lost big in the Six Day War, and they were angry.   The colossal defeat of the governments that supposedly had been looking out for their interests gained them more independence, and some sympathetic support (funding, arms) from Arab governments.

This is the period when "Palestinian = terrorist" became a popular equation in Western consciousness.    Airline hijacking and such tactics as the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics of 1972 were really the only  tactics they could use to insist on their continued existence as a wronged people.

Israel was nevertheless able to resist any settlement with the Arabs.   The famous UN Security Council Resolution 242 (Nov. 1967) outlined a strategy of "land for peace;" Israeli withdrawal to the cease-fire lines of 1949-67 in exchange for all countries recognizing Israel's right to exist.    This was unacceptable to both Israel and many Arabs with interest in Palestine.   Israel, having staved off annihilation, was unwilling to give up the strategic advantage just won.   Settlements were introduced into the new territories.

In 1969, Nasir with Soviet help (perhaps Soviet pilots in Egyptian planes?) began harassing Israel along the Suez Canal (now the effective Israeli border).    But by August of 1970, Israel was getting the best of the conflict and there was a new ceasefire, with negotiations to follow.

In September, the PLO acted to derail the talks by hijacking four airliners, which were all blown up on the ground (after the passengers were released); one was destroyed in Egypt, three in Amman, Jordan.   King Hussein of Jordan was so angry at this use of his territory that he attacked the PLO.

Syria intervened to support the PLO in Jordan; Jordan got the US to ask Israel for air support, which Israel would not do without a US guarantee to act against Egypt and the USSR if they supported Syria.   Close to world war?    The USSR did not risk it, since it had no interest in Arab victory.

Hussein beat the Syrians, expelled the PLO, which had to establish itself in southern Lebanon.

At the end of September, 1970, Nasir died, resulting in passionate demonstrations of grief.   There has been no pan-Arab leader of his influence since.    Anwar Sadat, who succeeded him, had a hard time even maintaining himself in Egypt.

The post-Nasir world looked very grim with Arabs.   Israel could not be worn down, and Arab governments were unwilling to risk a real war with Israel -- to the point of fighting the PLO instead, if it pulled them toward disaster.

There was only one way ahead:   to convince the US to force Israel to make peace.   The effort to do so led Sadat to start another war.

In 1973, Sadat arranged with Syria to attack Israel on October 6, the beginning of the Yom Kippur holy period in Judaism and the anniversary of the Battle of Badr.   At first, there was success, and Israel was forced to appeal to the US for weapons to counteract Soviet weapons on the other side.   Otherwise, Israel threatened to use nuclear weapons.   The US provided the weapons, and Israel was able to counterattack Egypt and cross the Suez Canal.   Both the US and the USSR wanted to stop the war, but they were not able to do so before they started mobilizing against each other.   Again, world war was near.   A new ceasefire was put in place in late October.

The US was pushed in this direction by the first Arab boycott of oil to the US and the Netherlands (the site of the spot market in oil).    Although US oil supplies were hardly affected, pretty soon the whole world economy was transformed.

Arab governments talked about their (very real) anger about US support for Israel, but there was another motivation, too:  a struggle between the obscure OPEC organization to get better prices from US, British and Dutch oil companies.   The long oil glut was over, and OPEC (which included US allies Iran and Venezuela) had the advantage.   The unifying cause was a desire for more money.

In the next few years there was a vast reallocation of wealth on a global scale.

Did Arabs benefit from this?

Most of the money quickly left the Arab oil producing countries in search of productive investment, or for guns.    Western banks, investment houses, suppliers, and arms merchants got much of it.

Nor did a united Arab front against Israel emerge.   Oil states put pressure on Third World countries without oil to cut ties with Israel, but the important ally was the US, and Arab countries did not unify against the US.

The gains of the October War was illusory, and eventually Anwar Sadat had to try another desperate tactic -- a flying visit to Jerusalem in November of 1977, and the Camp David accords of 1978.

"Camp David" was peace on Israel's terms:

  •  A peace treaty with (and therefore recognition by) the foremost Arab country
  • Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai in stages (to 1982)
  • Israeli access to the Canal and the Gulf of Aquaba
  • A promise (not fulfilled for years, and then very stingily) of Palestinian autonomy on the West Bank and Gaza, to be negotiated over the next five years.   (Negotiations didn’t really start until the 1990s and have failed to settle the most important issues.)

This was far from being an Arab-Israeli peace.     Egypt (but not the USA!) was ostracized by the other Arab governments, and the peace had to be supported by vast US subsidies to both Egypt and Israel.   The US interest in this very expensive policy was basically to keep the USSR out of the Middle East.

(In class we will discuss why the US has played such a key role in the Arab world, and why the Arab countries, despite all the talk of Arab nationalism and unity, have proved unable to work together.)

Israel gained a certain immunity from attack by the bordering Arab states; without Egypt no such attack could possibly succeed. Israel gained the ability to pursue settlement in the West Bank and Gaza without interference of its near neighbors (only Syria, angry about the occupation of the Golan Heights, maintained a consistent hostility but could do nothing alone).


However, this Israeli victory (and it was) did not produce lasting security, because non-state forces continued to resist Israeli occupation and settlement. Israel in the 1980s continued on a war footing.


        Lebanon, which had become divided by civil war in 1976 between pro- and anti-Palestinian factions (to greatly oversimplify) became a safe haven for PLO forces to Israel’s north. To secure the border, Israel invaded twice, in 1978 and 1982, to push back anti-Israeli forces. The 1982 invasion led to a prolonged, expensive and debilitating occupation of south Lebanon, which lasted until 2000.

        In the West Bank and Gaza, frustrating with living in limbo eventually produced the intifada (“shaking off” or “uprising”); at first it was angry teenagers throwing stones at the visible presence of Israeli occupation, young Israeli soldiers, in 1987. Soon enough the resistance activities became more violent and normality broke down in the occupied territories.


Thus within 10 years of Camp David Israel was beginning to understand that that agreement, however favorable it had initially seemed, was an insufficient foundation for Israel’s future.

Copyright (C) 1999, 2007 Steven Muhlberger.